Starring: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Gloria Steinem, Nina Totenberg, Clara Spera
Directors: Betsy West and Julie Cohen
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Rating: PG for Eyeroll-Style Rebukes to Years of Discrimination
Release Date: May 4, 2018 (Limited)
RBG is not so much about lionizing Ruth Bader Ginsburg as much as it is about capturing the moment of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. It is compelling in that regard because the fact that a woman achieves her greatest fame in her eighties, for whatever reason, is notable in and of itself. Ginsburg’s singularity is understandable insofar as becoming a justice on the United States Supreme Court is typically the culmination of a decades-long career, but her uniqueness is nonetheless still remarkable. Directors Betsy West and Julie Cohen make the case that this moment is richly deserved, as Ginsburg has played critical roles in key moments in American legislative history. This is a documentary that makes the case for someone who has so assiduously made many cases for others.
As a progressive-minded individual, and a fan of Ginsburg’s already, I am pre-disposed to enjoy a doc that takes an admiring approach towards her. But as a critic, I am always inclined to wonder if I have fallen prey to a bit of hagiography. I imagine this film would not have gotten made if not for the existence of the “Notorious R.B.G.” tumblr, but this is not the “RBG memes” movie. It puts in the work to justify why this story is worth being told. In clear, efficient terms, it presents how Ginsburg was integral in multiple landmark decisions involving gender equity, as she rectified institutional discrimination that had been hurting both men and women. And as much as RBG reveals how Ginsburg deserves gratitude from certain constituencies, it does not turn a blind eye to her more questionable moments, as it examines the appropriateness, or lack thereof, of her critical comments about Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign.
Overall, RBG demonstrates admirable commitment to the concept of cura personalis, Latin for “care for the entire person” (an idea that graduates of Jesuit institutions will intimately recognize). This is surely not the first documentary focused around the totality of an individual, but this particular doc displays care for the entire person more than most, whether or not its makers are familiar with any particular term. It is hardly groundbreaking that a chronicle of Ginsburg’s career is accompanied with stories of her family life, or friendly interactions with her colleagues, or her reactions to Kate McKinnon’s SNL impression of her as a Def Jam-style comedian. (It is perhaps a little bit surprising, though, that we also get to see footage of her daily workout routine.) Ultimately the value of a film like this is fully in focus in the scenes with Ginsburg and her granddaughter, law student Clara Spera (who is equal parts admiring of the public figure and loving of the family member), and that value is that everyone should be treated with such thorough, compassionate care.
RBG is Recommended If You Like: Ruth Bader Ginsburg the Person, Ruth Bader Ginsburg the Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg the Meme, Kate McKinnon’s impression of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Grade: 3.75 out of 5 Dissents